Coconut oil falls under the category of foods that some people consider to be a miracle food, and others claim to be poison. Some diets and blogs applaud embrace the oil and speak highly of its alleged health benefits, while others see it as toxic goo that should be avoided at all costs. Which begs the question: is coconut oil good for you?
Let’s take a look at the current state of the science, and see what it says about coconut oil, and I’ll let you make your own conclusions.
*Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults to gather general information. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical ca
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a tropical oil made from the kernel (aka the white ‘meat’) of mature coconuts.
There are two types of coconut oil found commonly in the marketplace: copra oil, which is typically made from dried coconut meat, and virgin coconut oil (VCO), which is processed from fresh coconut meat within 24 hours. The two forms have similar nutrient profiles, but VCO is considered “unrefined.”
So what does the science say? Is coconut oil good for you?
Many people believe the fat in coconut oil has beneficial properties; it is often touted upon for containing medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs are absorbed differently than short and long chain fatty acids, and there has been some data to suggest that MCFAs have some unique and potentially beneficial properties.
It is true that MCFAs are considered to be absorbed more efficiently than long chain fatty acids. Unlike other fatty acids, which must be transported through the lymph, MCFAs are transported from the gut directly to the liver, and can enter the mitochondria independently of the carnitine transport system. They also undergo preferential oxidation, meaning they are quickly harvested as fuel for the body.
However, coconut oil is not primarily composed of MCFAs; in fact, it typically contains no more than 14% MCFAs, and is about 80-90% saturated fat.
LDL is a type of cholesterol often referred to as ‘the bad cholesterol,’ as it allows cholesterol to build up in the blood, and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, which is currently the number one killer in the United States.
It’s recommended that most people consume only 7-10% of their total calories from saturated fat; even less (usually 5-6%) is recommended for those with elevated LDL levels.
Seeing as coconut oil is rich in saturated fats, many major scientific and medical regulatory advisory boards, including the American Heart Association, have suggested limiting or avoiding coconut oil consumption, and replacing it with other types of fat (like mono and polyunsaturated fats, see this article for more).
A review of coconut oil and cardiovascular risk factors published in 2016 supports this recommendation.
Some news headlines and health influencers have also given the public the impression that coconut oil can be used for prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, bone loss, and glycemic (blood sugar) control.
An actual look at the data behind these claims suggests all studies on these disease topics are limited, and fail to show significant or consistent properly-powered results.
For example, let’s examine the claims that the oil can be used to prevent or control diabetes.
There is a 1992 study on lauric acid (a fatty acid found in coconut oil), showed increased insulin (which helps regulate the amount of glucose, or sugar, in your blood) secretion in mouse cells.
However, once again, oil from coconuts was not directly used, and this has never been tested or replicated in humans.
Furthermore, the claims about coconut oil and Alzheimer’s stem yet again from data based on data that MCFAs may be somewhat beneficial. However, as mentioned above, claims made about MCFAs do not apply to coconut oil, which is primarily saturated fat.
Some people also applaud VCO for its high percentage of phenolic acids, which are bioactive compounds with antioxidant properties.
However, the amount of phenolic acids in the oil depends on environmental conditions during coconut maturation, the techniques used to extract the oil, the extent of processing, and the conditions of transportation, and storage.
There are a couple of studies that suggest coconut oil may offer some cosmetic uses; for example, a study or two suggest it may be protective against hair damage.
There are also some studies done that examine its use as a treatment for atopic dermatitis; however, they are all very small and show inconsistent results, and thus, I am not going to suggest its use as a primary treatment for atopic dermatitis based on existing evidence.
What about all of the news articles that say coconut oil helps you burn fat?
There are a lot of news headlines and health bloggers who make claims that “science says” coconut oil burns fat.
Here’s the tea — there are some studies (actually done by one of my former professors!) that suggest eating and cooking with MCFAs can help adults on diets burn fat.
However, these studies once again used 100% MCFA oils, which can’t be generalized to coconut oil.
So health bloggers and product advertisements that claim “science suggests” the oil will magically burn fat while failing to mention that coconut oil actually mostly saturated fat exemplifies classic distortion of science, and/or making liberal sweeping claims off of scientific literature without acknowledgment of the full truth.
So should I eat coconut oil?
Coconut oil adds a rich and unique flavor and texture to many foods. And as I always say, the dose makes the poison.
Although coconut oil is rich in saturated fat, occasional consumption in small amounts is likely fine for most healthy people.
If you do not presently have a cardiovascular risk, enjoying it in moderation as part of a robust, diverse diet is not likely to prevent you from achieving health.
However, seeing as there is strong evidence to support overconsumption of saturated fat has negative impacts on cardiovascular disease, and considering there haven’t been many long-term studies done on coconut oil specifically (and not just MCFAs), based on current available literature, I wouldn’t recommend using it regularly over fat sources rich in monounsaturated fats* and polyunsaturated fats*, which have a strong body of evidence behind them to support their health benefits.
*Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like olive oil, peanuts, avocados, and most nuts. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are found in foods like walnuts, canola oil, salmon, sunflower seeds, and corn oil.
PUFA include omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, flax seeds, among other foods) and omega-6 fatty acids (found in safflower oil, sunflower oil, walnuts, and wheat germ). These are considered essential fats, meaning your body can’t make them and you need to obtain them from your diet. Of all the fats, PUFAs considered best for heart health when you replace other fats, or in some studies, high levels of carbohydrates, with them. Read more about fats in this post.
That said, it seems to have some worthwhile cosmetic uses as a moisturizer for skin and hair. I have heard from others that it’s an effective makeup remover, and have used it myself as such with success (though as always, this isn’t a scientific claim and my sample size of n=1, so this is more just a personal anecdote, so take it for what you will).
However, consistently replacing other sources of fat with this tropical oil and thinking it will either help you lose weight and/or act as a miracle superfood will most likely lead to disappointment, and may lead to elevated LDL levels and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
I hope this post helped if you’ve ever wondered, “Is coconut oil good for you?” As always, if you have questions or comments, leave them down below, and/or reach out to me on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube.
Video version here.
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